by Kyle Rohrich
Russia and the West are fighting the greatest geopolitical battle since the end of the Cold War not with nuclear arms races, aerial warfare, or military buildups. Rather, the most prevalent form of weaponry in the standoffs in Ukraine and throughout Eurasia is as unique as it is effective: the gays.
As the United States and European Union (EU) have begun advocating internationally for LGBT rights, Russian President Vladimir Putin has constructed an alternative ideology to rile populist movements throughout Eurasia—a region spanning Eastern and Southeastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia—against EU association. By casting LGBT rights promotion as Western aggression, Putin is succeeding in, for the first time, making sexual orientation part of nationalist discourse. If Western actors really care about the LGBT individuals caught in the subsequent crossfire, they should reexamine their LGBT rights strategies to weaken this dangerous linkage.
Putin’s reactionary, so-called traditional values argument against LGBT rights emerged as a product of his own political and geopolitical calculus. Shortly after former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously asserted that “gay rights are human rights,” Western political leaders promoted this belief abroad through conditional use of foreign aid, bilateral diplomatic levers, and efforts to codify LGBT rights into international human rights law. Putin found himself cornered as international actors, from his viewpoint, impinged upon Russian sovereignty through attempts to bind the country into accepting the LGBT “human rights” framework. Appealing to the country’s powerful social conservative base, Putin decided to transform LGBT rights into a nationalist issue, with Western promotion framed as an assault on the “traditional values” of the Russian people. His stance served a dual-purpose: it consolidated his domestic support after a wave of anti-Putin protests in 2012, and it provided a vehicle to expand Russia’s influence over similarly conservative societies in its “near-abroad.”
Unfortunately, Putin’s strategy is succeeding. At first glance, it appears LGBT rights are advancing in Eastern and Southern European countries as a result of EU accession standards that mandate countries to provide legal protections for their LGBT populations. Under the surface, however, large portions of the populations of Poland and Turkey remain intensely homophobic, and many EU candidate governments often fail to uphold in practice what LGBT protections exist on paper. Homophobic attitudes are actually increasing throughout much of the Balkans, despite the apparent success of Western countries in spearheading reforms against LGBT hate speech and discrimination in these countries. And in the Caucasus, belief that “homosexuality can never be justified” soars well into the ninetieth percentile. Politicians from Macedonia to Kazakhstan are proposing anti-LGBT legislation for their political gain, all while U.S., EU, and other international delegations have released numerous LGBT rights reports, conditioned millions of dollars of foreign assistance, and lit up government buildings in rainbow colors in efforts to advance LGBT rights in the region.
This Western LGBT rights advocacy has played directly into Putin’s hands. A master of political spin, Putin identified LGBT rights as an issue that separates East and West and used it as a wedge to push Eurasian countries away from the West. By framing LGBT rights as a Western import, Putin harnessed homophobic public opinion throughout the region to help achieve his geopolitical goal of rebuilding Russian influence. His strategy has been all but subtle. As the West threw its support to Ukrainian protestors in May 2014, Putin called the activists a group of “gay Nazis.” State-controlled Russian media outlets referred to the Maidan Square, the scene of the protests, as the “Gayeuromaidan,” reinforcing the popularly held notion that “LGBT” is a Western construct.
The pawns in this new Great Game, LGBT individuals, face increasingly grim prospects as sexual orientation becomes further associated with national identity. In this past year alone, Lithuania and six other Eurasian countries introduced Russian-style LGBT propaganda bills, thousands of Georgian nationalists chased LGBT activists through the streets of Tbilisi, and state-sanctioned anti-LGBT violence soared in eastern Ukraine. In Kyrgyzstan, a swarm of young Kyrgyz nationalists rumored to be funded by the Kremlin burned photos of a local human rights activist in protest of American intervention in local issues. With Western led LGBT advocacy now embroiled in a nationalist debate, local LGBT activists are increasingly wary of this dangerous linkage. Young activist Danik Kasmamytov told me, “We are very much afraid of the rhetoric that LGBT rights come from the West.”
In World War LGBT—the EU’s and Russia’s competition to establish their respective spheres of influence—one man’s LGBT freedom fighter is another man’s cultural imperialist. However, whether LGBT rights are human rights or an affront to traditional values is irrelevant. Should Western actors believe in the cause, it is time they evaluate the results of their diplomacy. The fates of millions of LGBT individuals depend on it.
About the Author
Kyle James Rohrich is a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) candidate at The Fletcher School, with a focus on conflict resolution and public international law. He is a Boren National Security Fellow to Azerbaijan and previously a Boren Scholar to Kyrgyzstan. Kyle is also an inaugural "Diplomacy and Diversity" Fellow for Humanity in Action, an international human rights organization.